Last week, Pembrokeshire’s two Tory MPs announced that they will be voting against further powers for the National Assembly. That will have surprised precisely nobody – they’re much more in touch with what rank and file members of their party think than are Nick Bourne and the Tory AMs who have said that they will be supporting a yes vote.
Most Conservatives-in-Wales remain deeply hostile to the whole concept of devolution and are highly sceptical of the motives of the party’s AMs, as perhaps evidenced by the quotation by one senior Tory (Henry Lloyd Davies) in John Osmond’s piece on ClickonWales today that “… they’re on the gravy train. They’ve got their noses in the trough.”
John argues that this makes much of the debate an internal one to the Conservative Party in Wales, and that the outcome will be a more explicitly Welsh Conservative Party. I’m not so sure; there’s certainly a debate between the AMs on the one hand and the majority of their MPs on the other; but at grass roots level, opinion is overwhelmingly one-sided. The call by one Tory constituency chair (Harri Lloyd Davies, son of Henry) for the party to become more Welsh doesn’t reflect the reality of the Conservative Party I see locally.
Although they haven’t put it in quite this way themselves, the two MPs’ argument appears to be that they’re unhappy with the policies being pursued by the Assembly Government and will therefore not support further powers. It’s almost a mirror image of Hain’s argument that he’s unhappy with the policies being pursued at Westminster so Cardiff (and Labour) should have more powers.
In effect, they are all saying that they want power to reside wherever their party can exercise it. It’s an argument – like much of what ‘True Wales’ are saying – which is all about which party is in power and what policies are being implemented; judging the institution on the basis of who's in control. It’s taking a very short term view, rather than considering what structure is right for the long term.
In some ways, it may turn the referendum debate into another front in the UK-wide Labour-Tory battle, a way of fighting that battle by proxy. Purely considering ends and means, that may not be entirely a bad thing at one level – given Wales’ long love affair with the Labour Party, presenting the choice in that way is more likely to help the yes side than the no side. The ‘boys from London’ (as Harri Lloyd Davies puts it) are almost certainly over-estimating the strength of their party’s support.
What it does not do, though, is promote the case for change in the context of a Welsh debate about the future direction and government of Wales. It was always going to be difficult to enthuse anyone about the merits of Part 4 over Part 3, so it should be no surprise that extraneous factors creep in. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a lost opportunity though.